By Tim Hartnell
After relying on mail order for 18 months Sinclair Research has ventured into the retail field – via the giant newsagency chain, WH Smith. In 112 stores, Computer Know-How centres feature displays based around an operating ZX-81 which is backed up by computer magazines and books.
The agreement, which began in September, is for a trial period of 12 months. “Both parties view the agreement as an experiment”, says Clive Sinclair, inventor of the ZX-81. “We accepted Smith’s approach because they have clearly researched the subject carefully, and take the new operation very seriously”.
Under the sales contract, WH Smith has established the computer departments in its stores, and although the company is selling a wide range of computer books and magazines, it is staying away from hardware – except for the ZX-81.
WH H Smith has made the move into the computer field after its success with computer books and magazines. For several years, the only place you could find computer books was in specialist computer shops. Then, the retail chains discovered the appeal of computers and began to stock the magazines. Now, few of the specialist stores bother to stock the British monthlies, relying instead on issues of U .S. magazines and books. The same is unlikely to happen with computers, because both WH Smith and Sinclair Research believe they will be tapping a whole new market – one which would not consider buying by mail order.
John Rowland, WH Smith market-development manager, said the company had decided to approach Clive Sinclair for the rights to sell the ZX-81 because Sinclair Research was the only company with “both a proven product available in the right quantities, and a proven sales record.
“Last year we starred a small experiment with computer books and magazines”, says Rowland, “and it worked well. So what we’ve done now is bring the computer-orientated publications together with an actual computer, to create the Computer Know-How section of the store”.
The first test market for computer products was the WH Smith store in the Brent Cross Shopping Centre. “We sold a good deal of books there” Rowland recalls. “We thought that we were at the beginning of something important, and that with suitable hardware, we’d have a combination which would prove successful”.
Rowland says that the traditional strengths of WH Smith in selling books and magazines had increased in recent years with the development of the record and toy departments, the camera and film sections, and the small office and home products such as typewriters and calculators. Computers seemed the next logical step.
“We sell about 500,000 computer magazines a year”, sows Rowland. “CB is the latest boom, with a new magazine in the field just about every month, but computer magazines are very strong, and we expect this area to keep growing”.
WH Smith started in the computer magazine field by importing magazines from the United States: “We had many American magazines”, says Rowland, “and they sold very well”. He says he found that the home-bred magazines quickly improved out of sight, and the need to import U.S. publications diminished.
As well as the ZX-81 and computer books and magazines the Computer Know-How section of the WH Smith’s stores sell blank cassettes at 50p as well as the Sinclair-produced software.
“We’ll look at how the ZX-81 goes, and then decide if we want to carry other machines”, says Rowland.
He is aware of the problems some people had had with early 16K memory packs but says he has been assured by Sinclair Research that the problems associated with the RAMs had been ironed out.
“We’ll be providing our own service on the computers, and related hardware” says Rowland, “The machines will be covered by our normal audio guarantee. We normally repair cassette recorders and the like within 21 hours, and we imagine we’ll be able to do the same with the ZX-81. Of course, we’ve had no experience here – time will tell”.
WH Smith has decided that if the ZX-81 experiment works, it could well become a major part of the company’s marketing policy in the 1980s. The company believes that its strength in the book and magazine markets places it in a good position to attract potential purchasers of the machine.
WH Smith is aiming to sell as many machines during the five months’ retail agreement as Sinclair Research sell in one month by mail order – about 10,000 computers a month.
WH Smith sees the back-to-school and Christmas trading periods as very important for ZX-81 sales. The company expects sales to grow slowly as people gradually became aware that it is selling the computer. Then, when Christmas gift-buying time arrives, WH Smith hopes people will automatically turn to their local branch as the source for the ZX-81.
About 300 WH Smith staff have been trained in the rudiments of the ZX-81. They have been shown how to plug in the machine, attach the 16K pack and the printer, and know the memory requirements of the five cassette software packs on sale. A number of magazines have been moved from the general magazine section to the Computer Know-How departments. These include Your Computer, and its sister publication Practical Computing.
A number of books – none of which has any particular relevance to the ZX-81 – are also on sale in the special computer areas. Some, such as Illustrating Basic and Introduction to microprocessing are likely to prove bewildering and worse than useless for first-time computer buyers.
If you are having problems with your mail-order ZX-81, do not try taking it into your nearest WH Smith claiming you bought it from there, and expecting to have it repaired. ZX-81s sold by WH Smith have a WH serial number. Staff have been told not to accept any ZX-81s without this serial number.